In my work with thousands of accountants over the years, I have made an interesting and disturbing discovery: Most firms really don’t know why prospects choose to become their clients.

In many cases, they simply walked in the door and said they needed help, and the firm was able to support them. But why that firm over any other firm? They simply don’t know, and most have never given it much thought.

After all, isn’t it good enough that they got the business? Well, no.

The problem is that when you don’t know why people buy from you, when you don’t know their specific needs or their buying impulses, you don’t know how to purposely market to those factors to draw more clients in the future.

The other side of that coin, of course, is that if you do know the elements and characteristics of your firm that draw clients to you, you can maximize those for future wins.

This is one aspect of “attracting” new work and it’s a skill set that needs to be present in the partners and senior managers of any firm that wants to grow by winning more clients of a higher quality.

I say “higher quality” because focusing on “attracting,” rather than “selling,” allows you to acquire the clients you identify as the ones you most want to work with — your ideal clients — rather than those who provide only low-fee routine work and have no loyalty to you because they don’t perceive you as delivering significant value that is any different from your competitors.

So how are clients “attracted” to any given firm? Well, it’s a process, and a process you     can easily learn. Small actions done regularly, with simple steps consistently implemented and mastered, can result in tremendous progress, and there is huge satisfaction and even
excitement in knowing you can control growth by being able to win work proactively.

The fact that “attracting” new clients is actually a process appeals to accountants once they master it, because in our profession we’ve grown up with audit checklists and step-by-step procedures.

This also makes it possible to coach accountants in attracting new work.

That’s important, because if all the business development is in the hands of just a few people at the top, what will happen to the firm as they retire?

If the upcoming generation of professionals has not been trained in the skills of attracting new business, opportunities will be lost and the firm’s growth will stagnate.

Let’s assume for a moment that your firm’s marketing activities have paid off, and you have secured a face-to-face meeting with a prospective client. What happens next? Well, there are various steps you can take to ensure a positive outcome to the all-important first meeting.

 

THE CLIENT’S DILEMMA

Many potential clients who agree to meet with you are not new business owners. They may have been operating for a long time, and have an ongoing relationship with another accountant. So in essence you must persuade them to leave that relationship and come over to you.

It’s important to understand what’s going on in the prospect’s mind at this point. Maybe their current accountant has become a friend over the years, and they may feel guilty even considering going with another firm. This feeling can create cold feet very early in the process, which can lead to a cancellation of the meeting and of your opportunity, unless you take steps to prevent it.

If you could peer into the prospect’s mind at this point, you might find thoughts such as, “OK, I know I need to do something and that’s why I agreed to the appointment. But I’m nervous. I’m out of my comfort zone. I don’t want to pay more than I’m paying now. What if it costs more than Joe charges me? What if I don’t like the look of them?”

Ultimately, if this is a fair-sized business, you might be looking at relieving them of a significant sum of money every year, so what are you going to bring to the table in exchange for the fees that you’re going to charge?

This comes close to the thought process that is going on in the prospect’s mind, so you need to prove your worth in some way from the start of the meeting.

 

THE MEETING

You know that in order for you to help this potential client, they will need to share sensitive information about the business with you, but they’re not going to do that as soon as you sit down. You need to earn that privilege. The more you understand about how the prospect is thinking, the more you’re likely to hit the right buttons and create a level of connection that you can leverage as the process moves ahead.

You also need to think about your communication with this person in relation to the position they hold in their organization. A finance director, for example, might be more numbers-oriented, while a managing director who is an entrepreneur might be a quick decision-maker and not want to listen to a lot of details. Don’t put artificial pressure on yourself by believing you have to leave every first meeting with a new client. Instead, relax and understand this is going to be a relationship-building situation.

You don’t know exactly how it’s going to unfold, but you believe you have a solution for this prospect so you can afford to take it easy and establish rapport.

It is essential, though, that you do have an objective and that you go after it. One of the biggest mistakes an accountant makes is leaving a meeting with nothing decided, no next step taken. To move things forward, you must at least set a time and date for a next meeting.

It is easy for meetings to turn into conversations that don’t result in future action.

Generally speaking, partners are good people with a genuine interest in helping businesses, so the discussion usually goes well. Rapport is established, and it’s clear the firm can bring something to the table that the prospect doesn’t already have. The meeting appears to have gone well.

But unfortunately it often all falls apart at the end because there is a weak finish, with no commitment to any kind of follow-up. “Well, have a think about that and come back to me if you are interested” or “Send me your books and records and I will come back to you with a quote” or similar comments are handing the prospect an invitation to back out of the process.

This lets the situation cool off, allowing the entire interest you have built up to dissipate as other things vie for the prospect’s attention as each day passes.

If you have confidence that you’ve created value in the first meeting, if there is a clear reason to have further discussion to get to know each other better or even to present a proposal, then you owe it to yourself as well as the prospect to schedule the next step and get it on both your schedules.

Ultimately, the strong first meeting is one where you leave the meeting with a date, a time, a place and an action. Anything less than that is likely to drift.

Martin Bissett is the managing director of The Upward Spiral Partnership Ltd., a U.K.-based consulting firm that specializes in teaching professional selling skills and leadership development to the accounting profession. He is the author of Winning Your First Client (available from CPA Trendlines).

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